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Care What You Wear

Eric Henry, Sustainable T-shirt Maker Extraordinaire, Answers Grist Magazine's Questions

Questions from Grist Editors

Q: What work do you do?


A: I am the president of T.S. Designs.

Q: How does it relate to the environment?

A: We provide the highest-quality, most-sustainable printed T-shirts on the market. We define that as being made of organic cotton or other sustainable fibers, manufactured in the U.S., and printed and dyed with our environmentally friendly REHANCE process. We also want to be an example of a successful triple-bottom-line business.

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

A: Probably too many things while being involved in the day-to-day sales and marketing activities. We want to demonstrate sustainable practices, not just talk about them. This year we are planning an Energy Independence Day by opening an off-the-grid, green-built, card-swipe B100 biodiesel pump at TSD in conjunction with our friends at Piedmont Biofuels, and installing a wind turbine that will be tied into our solar array.

Q: How do you get to work?

A: I live about five miles from the office and have to drive solo every day. When we originally designed our building we put in a shower and I rode my bike to work a couple of times a week. Now, due to urban sprawl and shoulder-less roads, the trip is too dangerous. There are no mass-transit options or even a sidewalk; the car is your only option to get to TSD. Now I am totally dependent on my 2000 VW TDI that I have been running on B100 for over three years. We make that B100 at TSD through the Burlington Biodiesel Co-op. The car also has the Elsbett one tank WVO [Waste Veggie Oil] conversion, so unless we have very cold weather, which we get less and less these days, I have no reason to run petrol diesel.

Q: What long and winding road led you to your current position?

A: I started a T-shirt business while in college to support my non-academic activities. While I was still in school, my business joined up with T.S. Designs, which was started by Tom Sineath. Tom and I have been partners for almost 30 years now. It was an Earth Day event in the early 1980s that planted the seed to understanding the importance of running a "green" business.

Q: Where were you born? Where do you live now?

A: I was born in Radford, Va., and moved to Burlington, N.C., at age 3, where I still live with my wife of more than 20 years. We hope in the next few years to sell our house and move to the country so my wife can be closer to her horses, and hopefully we can build a green house that is "off the grid."

Q: What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

A: I will never forget the meeting my partner and I attended about a year or so before the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. The event was sponsored by a couple of large textile companies, and their executives were big supporters of NAFTA, promoting all the new markets that it was going to open to the U.S. We could not envision how someone in Mexico that was making 50 cents an hour was going to buy a $20 Nike T-shirt. Within two years after NAFTA we lost over 90 percent of our business and had to lay off the majority of our employees.

Q: What's been the best?

A: NAFTA, because it forced us to creatively destroy and rebuild our business with the insight of a good friend, Sam Moore, who introduced a sustainable business model to us: the triple bottom line. We are rebuilding our company still. It is now over 95 percent U.S.-made, organic cotton using our patented REHANCE process to make the most sustainable printed T-shirt on the market today. So today, instead of our customers being Nike, Tommy, or Gap, they are Whole Foods, Greenpeace, and The Discovery Channel.

Q: What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?

A: Business leaders sometimes think that by complying with regulations they are meeting their environmental responsibilities. Over 16 years ago, while drinking coffee with our employees, I noticed all the Styrofoam cups on the table. I suggested that we stop buying the cups and have employees bring in their own ceramic mugs. Although you can still buy Styrofoam cups, we have kept thousands out of the landfill. It is usually the small things a business can do that over the long term will have a big impact.

Q: Who is your environmental hero?

A: I guess I have two. When I first started studying the triple-bottom-line business model I read Ray Anderson's Mid-Course Correction and Paul Hawken's Natural Capitalism. I have had an opportunity to meet both of them and they were very important in forming our business plan.

Q: What's your environmental vice?

A: Boy, I have many of them, but probably my poor planning and running out for fast food during lunch. We don't have many good food options in our area, plus you have to jump in your car to go get it.

Q: How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?

A: My free time usually gets consumed in a new project. The newest is Company Shops Marketplace Co-op, a plan to bring a co-op grocery to our community and reconnect local agriculture back to our community. I just finished reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Q: What's your favorite meal?

A: Stir-frying local vegetables with my wife when they come in season. We joined a CSA a few years ago and we are always excited when our weekly green box shows up. Two years ago, we started trading some of our share of biodiesel from our biodiesel co-op for the green box.

Q: Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

A: I'm never satisfied. I want to keep pushing the window on what we can do, both in business and in personal life, to improve our impact and make our community better. A few years ago my wife and I gave up our gas cars for biodiesel, and this year we are working at a small farm; along with our CSA, we hope to get all of our seasonal vegetables locally.

Q: What's your favorite place or ecosystem?

A: I seem to like the mountains more than the coast. I like the Rockies in the winter for skiing the most, but our Blue Ridge Mountains are just a few hours away.

Q: If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

A: In our area we have been hit hard by urban sprawl; we need our local government to do more in-depth, long-term transportation and economic-impact studies via public hearings.

Q: Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?

A: At 18 I was pretty much into the hard rock like Boston or Led Zeppelin. Today I still like the rock 'n' roll, but I mix that up with a lot of jazz. I haven't caught the rap thing, and even though I'm from the South, I'm not a country-music fan.

Q: What's your favorite TV show?

A: I'm a big sci-fi fan, but for news and laughs I probably watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report more than anything else on TV.

Q: If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

A: You vote with your dollar, and when you are spending those dollars you have a responsibility of knowing where it goes. Unfortunately we live in a society that thinks that gas comes from the gas pump, clothes from the mall, and food from the grocery store. I have no problem with people being successful and making a lot of money; I do have a problem sometimes with how that money gets spent.

Questions from Readers

Q: What dyes do you use? What is the process the clothing goes through to become 100 percent sustainable? Does your company pollute at all through any of the processing?    -- Brent Giacchetti, Minneapolis, Minn.

A: Excellent question. To answer your last question directly: yes, we pollute. We use energy created by a coal-fired power plant; we transport our products all over the United States; we use natural-gas burners in our dryers. We are also constantly looking for ways to lower this footprint.

The first thing to remember when considering the sustainability of any consumer product is that if the company states that it is 100 percent sustainable, they're either lying or they misunderstand the term "sustainable." No business is 100 percent sustainable unless it uses no fossil fuels to transport its products, no fossil-fueled electricity in its production process, only recycled parts, and products made entirely by hand by people who are fed on only 100 percent sustainable food (you can see where I'm going with this). Every business creates waste, and every business pollutes on some level. The important concept we encourage is the idea of continuous improvement. No business is perfect; the knowledge and will to look for ways to constantly improve your impact on the environment and society is the closest to perfect a business can ever be.

We have experimented with natural dyes in the past, but found that they did not stand up to our quality standards in terms of durability and color fastness. We use low-impact, bi-functional reactive dyes in all our garment-dyeing. These are not natural dyes, but they are the best garment dyes that technology has to offer that can meet our quality standards while maintaining the smallest environmental footprint. They meet the Global Organic Textile Standard and the Okitex European standard for environmental impact, which addresses the largest environmental concern of most garment dyes: heavy metals.

Q: If you have concern for the environmental impact of the screen-printing industry, why not market your REHANCE process to other contractors as an alternative to industrial inks?    -- Joel Tippens, Daytona Beach, Fla.

A: First of all, let me say that we are committed to having as transparent an operation as possible, and I appreciate that you ask a hard question.

To answer your question directly, there are two reasons. First, included in our sustainable business model are three ideals: people, planet, and profits. The profits piece can be difficult to address, as the environmental movement is very "open source," if you will, and it is encouraged to share information about sustainable methods freely within the community. On the other hand, as a business, we cannot attempt to improve our efforts toward people and the planet without profits, without resources to exist. REHANCE is one of our most important competitive advantages, and to lose it would hurt our business tremendously.

Second, even though we need REHANCE, we have actually attempted to license it to other companies for use. The biggest reason this doesn't work is expertise: it's simply so different a technology that other screen printers have a very hard time using it with any consistent results. Unfortunately we do not have a program put together or the resources to train other businesses on its use, so the licensing idea is on the back burner at this time.

Q: I loved your remark about how you reinvented yourself after NAFTA. There is a lesson there for other businesses trying to "go green." What is your organization's "green corporate mission" today?    -- Chandra Kishore, Centreville, Va.

A: Our current mission statement is to "build a sustainable company while simultaneously looking after people, the planet, and profits."

Our environmental mission today has turned toward carbon-emission reduction in the face of increased concern about global warming. We are attempting to lower our own carbon footprint by purchasing as many of our supplies locally as possible, buying more renewable energy, and purchasing carbon-offset credits. We are also set to install one of the first, if not the first, off-the-grid B100 biodiesel fuel pumps in our front yard, sponsored by Piedmont Biofuels.

Q: What sustainable community activities is T.S. Designs involved with? Have you received any local recognition?    -- J. Martin, Burlington, N.C.

A: Our community activities right now include on-site biofuel and sustainability classes through the local Alamance Community College and on-site hosting of TEVA, the Triad Electric Vehicle Association.

Unfortunately, environmental and social sustainability are not at the top of the priority list in our local community. We have, however, won a few local awards from our state department of energy, and one from the governor's office in 2003.

Q: How is your process different than discharge printing? How are you making your stencils and cleaning up your screens? Do you haze your screens to get rid of old print buildup? How do you reclaim your screens? What about washing out your screens after you have exposed them? Are you filtering your water before it goes down the drain?    -- Mark Giglio, Oakland, Calif.

A: Our process is essentially the opposite of discharge printing. Discharge printing takes an already-dyed shirt and blasts the dye out of it to create light-colored designs on a dark dyed shirt. Our process uses a specially formulated water-based ink that is printed on the shirt before it is garment-dyed, which keeps the dye from covering that printed area. The ink that we use, which is essential to the REHANCE process, is much more environmentally friendly than the chemicals that are used in discharge printing (although there are some new discharge chemicals coming out that are reported to be much more environmentally friendly).

We make our stencils with a water-resistant emulsion and clean them with nothing but water. We do use a haze remover, which by its nature is a moderately harsh chemical, if we need to get rid of print buildup in our screens. However, because of the nature of water-based inks, we hardly ever have to use it, as print buildup is practically nonexistent.

We reclaim our screens with a water pressure wash and an emulsion remover. The emulsion remover we use is Kiwo Stencil Remover, which is approved by our local water authority to be completely safe to put down a drain (meaning it can be eliminated through biological decomposition in adapted wastewater-treatment plants). After exposing our screens, we wash them out with tap water from a hose with a regular spray nozzle on it.

Q: I've been reading really good things about bamboo and hemp, yet finding basic towels and sheets is hard. What can a green-minded consumer do to influence the market?    -- Clifton Odom, San Diego, Calif.

A: Our focus right now is on organic cotton, as bamboo and hemp are exclusively imported fibers and we try to stay local when possible. I am a huge proponent of hemp production in the United States, and would love to be able to use it to make T-shirts here. My suggestion would be to contact your congressperson and encourage the legalization of hemp farming in the United States. The internet is also a great resource to find all sorts of products that are otherwise difficult to find, such as hemp or bamboo sheets. Remember, you vote with your dollar, so simply supporting these products by purchasing them is a great first step to influencing the market.

Q: How do you dispose of your water-based inks and handle the VOCs that they emit?    -- C.W. Dunn, Lebanon, N.H.

A: After printing an order, the ink is scraped out of the screens and held for future orders. If the inks are not used before their shelf life elapses, we wash the inks down the drain, which is approved as completely safe by our city water authority.

VOC, for any readers who don't know, stands for volatile organic compound. Water-based inks have no VOCs, which are a big problem in solvent-based inks. The lack of VOCs in water-based inks is one of their many environmental benefits.

Q: Are you doing business with L.L. Bean or Wal-Mart?    -- David Douglas, Avon, Mass.

A: We have done business with L.L. Bean in the past, but we are not actively working for them now. Although we commend Wal-Mart on their recent venture into organics, we could not do business with them at this time as they're not yet interested in local manufacturing.